No one in the debate has dwelt on the question of the House of Lords. I simply say, "Here we go again." I commented on the questions of proportional representation, the alternative vote and electoral reform. I accept what the Secretary of State said about alternative votes not being the same as proportional representation in a precise sense, but all such questions are to do with fiddling with the mechanism and the feeling of the choice of the person who goes into a polling booth-or does not do so-to exercise his freedom of choice. Playing around with that is very dangerous and the
reason for retaining the existing system is inviolate; it should be kept. It is about the essence of an individual's choice and that should not be reallocated according to a system of shuffling.
My party has been committed to the idea of an elected House of Lords, although I notice that those issues have now been put on the back burner. We have been talking about the matter since the mid-19th century; a certain relation of mine by the name of John Bright was calling for the abolition of the House of Lords even in those days. I am not sure that I would call for its abolition, because it does a fantastically good job, but I have serious doubts about whether it can continue without being elected. I am sorry that the relevant provisions have gone. I have no doubt that the mavericks who were referred to earlier were among those who were determined to maintain the House of Lords in its present state-much as I want to pay tribute to the incredibly hard work that it did. When I was in the shadow Cabinet I found that those people did amazing amounts of hard work. However, the question is about more than that: it is a matter of principle.
On the subject of treaties, I do not think that clause 24 should be exclusively devoted to the question of ratification. Consent is the issue and therefore the clause should be about treaties being laid before Parliament before consent. It is consent that really matters, and ratification is a much more complex question, which I do not intend to go into now, although I took up the issue when I took the Foreign Secretary to judicial review over ratification of the Lisbon treaty, so I feel strongly about it.
The general point on which I want to conclude is that there is far too much government, and the Bill retains far too much of the presidential nature of the direction in which our governmental system is going. The Bill deals with important matters, but there is a need for much deeper radical reform of the connection between the Government, Parliament and the voter than it contains. I would not want to dismiss it, but it does not grapple with the real question at the heart of what the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, as Chairman of the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, and the significant number of hon. Members on both sides of the House who are here first as parliamentarians, know is going wrong: the disconnection between Parliament and the people on the question not just of allowances, but of the manner in which the Government impose their will. I spoke about that in the debate on the effectiveness of Parliament in Westminster Hall yesterday. The Bill does not deal properly with those questions and we must amend the Standing Orders to restrain the extent to which the Government have control over what happens. The Back-Bench and House Committees, and the reassertion of the rights of Back Benchers-
I feel strongly that we are moving into a new phase of politics, with all the Facebooks, Twitters and the rest. The question of disconnection remains important, but I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield on the extent to which we have made progress in removing some of the more objectionable things from the Bill. I just do not think that that has gone far enough.
Mr. Straw: With the leave of the House, I would like to thank all hon. Members for their observations and to speak briefly in tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). This will be his last day in this House. He has been a paradigm of the best of the Members of this House who have shown that it is possible, by assiduity and imagination, to be profoundly influential from the Back Benches, on either side. Much of his work, particularly in chairing the Public Administration Committee, is reflected in the Bill and in other legislation. He will recall, as I do, an extraordinary evening more than 10 years ago at the Report stage of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, when he and I and many others had an open discussion that resulted in a much improved Act.
My hon. Friend made an important observation, which I accept, about the unsatisfactory nature of the wash-up process. There is not much that he can do about the fact that the process will be compressed, but yesterday in the other place my noble Friend Lord Rooker said that
"there would be a case for institutionalising that this House-jointly preferably...-should systematically say that an ad hoc committee of the House should look and monitor the wash-up package after six months and 18 months." -[ Official Report, House of Lords, 7 April 2010; Vol. 718, c. 1483.]
He made other, further suggestions about that. My noble Friend Lord Bach endorsed that from the Front Bench, and I endorse it too. I hope that that has the approbation of the other parties and that we shall look carefully at how the wash-up has happened, and the improvements we can make.
The amendment relates to the treaty provisions of the Bill. I am glad that we managed to persuade some of the outliers that they should be included. The amendment was moved in the other place by Lord Norton of Louth. It puts a commitment on the face of the Bill that where a treaty is laid before the House there is to be an explanatory memorandum. That would have happened anyway, but I am very happy to accept the amendment so that now it must happen.
Mr. Straw: There are two stages to the coming into force of a treaty. One is the signature and the second is ratification. I do not quite know what the hon. Gentleman means by consent. The signing of the treaty must be undertaken by the state party at the time when the treaty is agreed. I have been the signatory to a number of treaties and I cannot think of any process by which it would be possible to consult the hon. Gentleman and others before making the Executive decision to sign it.
Mr. Straw: If I may just complete this point; that is always subject to ratification. I felt, as Foreign Secretary, that it was wrong that the Executive alone should ultimately decide on ratification; it should be a matter for this place. That is why I pursued the matter as Foreign Secretary and when I had an opportunity I wanted to get it on the statute book, in this place. The hon. Gentleman's consent to ratification on all treaties-not just EU ones-will now be required.
Mr. Cash: I am grateful for that suggestion. I am quite sure that it will not happen, particularly in relation to European treaties. However, the key point is that in relation to consent the question of signature, rather than just ratification, should come before Parliament.
Mr. Grieve: I welcome amendment 6. I suppose that it shows what can be achieved when minds are concentrated wonderfully. Certainly, Lord Norton of Louth was able to secure some significant and interesting changes to the Bill in the course of an evening.
It is plainly desirable that there should be an explanatory memorandum. I take the Secretary of State's point that it might have been provided anyway. However, I recall that this issue has arisen on a number of occasions and that it has often been pointed out how desirable it would be, if the Government are laying legislation before the House, which can sometimes be quite technical in nature, that there should be an opportunity before the debate starts for a full explanation to be provided about how the legislation or treaty will impact.
Dr. Evan Harris: There is a feeling of déjà vu. Labour's earlier commitment to electoral reform-in the 1997 manifesto-has been mentioned. The Secretary of State will know that Lord Jenkins did a huge amount of work on that issue. I do not think that Lord Jenkins would have been happy with the way that the Government refused to live up to their manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on a choice between the status quo and what he had come up with. Has the Secretary of State had a chance in the intervening years to reflect on whether the Government can defend what they did in respect of that manifesto commitment, given that this amendment will probably be in another manifesto?
Mr. Straw: My reflection is as follows, since I was the Minister responsible for sponsoring the Jenkins review and for bringing it back to the House. The problem that we faced was that there was no consensus whatsoever-no consensus in my party and opposition from the Conservatives-for the proposals from Lord Jenkins and his colleagues. The judgment that we therefore made was that a referendum would be lost. I am not in any doubt that it would have been lost, because the whole of the Conservative party and most of the Labour party would have opposed those proposals.
Do I have a regret about that? Frankly, I am slightly fed up with being told that we broke a referendum commitment-we did not, if the terms of the manifesto are read properly. In some respects I do have a regret, because if we had had a referendum it would have been lost overwhelmingly-that was absolutely clear-and we could have moved on and that would have stopped those on the Liberal Democrat Benches from whingeing. But it would probably have been quite an expensive way of doing that.
The clause was introduced at the very last minute in the passage of the Bill through this House and-picking up on the point made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris)-it was my view and that of my hon. Friends that the proposal for a referendum was in the nature of an electoral stunt by the Government. The hon. Gentleman said that this matter goes back to 1997; for all I know, it goes back even earlier. I fear that his party has been the victim on numerous occasions of electoral stunts on the alternative vote by the Government and that it has been given tantalising promises which I hazard to suggest will never materialise.
My party did not think very much of these proposals for a referendum, all the more so-I make this point strongly-because it was proposed that we enact a provision that would come into effect in a completely new Parliament without any opportunity for that new Parliament to consider whether it agreed. Even if the complexion of the Parliament changed completely but the Government remained in office, it would have been possible to hold the referendum, notwithstanding the fact that a majority of this House might well consider it unnecessary and undesirable. For those reasons, we think that it was an ill-judged proposal.
We have indicated, and will no doubt debate during the election campaign, ways of improving the electoral system in this country. My party has some very clear ideas about reducing the size of this House and evening out the size of constituencies so as to make the first-past-the-post system work more fairly and more effectively. We intend to proceed with that and we will have an opportunity to debate it with the electorate and, indeed, the other parties during the campaign. We objected to the proposals, and in the circumstances nobody should be surprised by the fact that, when we were asked during the wash-up negotiations whether we considered them acceptable, we said, as we had done throughout the passage of the Bill, that we considered them to be an electoral stunt and did not wish them to be in a constitutional Bill of this nature.
David Howarth: The timing of this discussion is quite extraordinary. The day after the Prime Minister announced a programme that appears to include a referendum on electoral reform, the Government will have to troop through the Lobby to oppose that very policy. It seems to be a pattern that the Labour party proposes something to get a few votes, and when it has those votes it suddenly forgets about its commitments. Now the Lord Chancellor says that we have to read the Labour manifesto very carefully. As I am going back to the university of Cambridge to teach private law, which involves the close reading of documents, I suppose that my skills will come in handy in the next few weeks.
The timing of this discussion is extraordinary for another reason. I think that out in the country people are slowly starting to realise how extraordinary our voting system is, given that there is a prospect of a party gaining more votes than other parties but losing the election in terms of seats. I think that the public mood about the electoral system is just starting to change, but at precisely that point this House is to remove provision for a commitment to a referendum on changing that electoral system.
Dr. Evan Harris: Was my hon. Friend struck, as I was, by the assertion by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that the current first-past-the-post electoral system can be made fairer by changing constituency sizes and making them more equal? To cite the words of David Mitchell in a recent column in The Observer, is not the process of trying to make this electoral system fairer like throwing a slice of ham into the Grand Canyon to make it more of a sandwich?
David Howarth: That is a very good metaphor. In fact, that proposal combined with the other Conservative proposal to reduce the number of Members of Parliament would make the existing system even less proportionate.
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Surely the hon. Gentleman agrees that a system in which every vote is of equal value, because there is the same number of potential voters in each constituency, would be much fairer than the present system.
David Howarth: I am all in favour of making the electoral system fairer. That is why I oppose the amendment, because the only way to make the first-past-the-post system fairer is by abolishing it and replacing it with a better system.
I concede that, as the Secretary of State said, the AV system is not necessarily proportionate. I prefer the single transferable vote system, which is proportionate, and we have debated that in this House. Nevertheless, the system proposed by the Secretary of State is preferential and therefore marginally better than first past the post and a step in the right direction.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I am grateful for that. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that when we talk about fairness it is essential to remember that there are 3.5 million people who cannot vote, even though they are eligible, because they are not registered? Whenever the Conservatives talk about redrawing boundaries, they always ignore the point that it is simply not possible to do that fairly until everyone who is eligible to vote is registered to vote. Without that, it is just gerrymandering.
David Howarth: I agree with the Minister. The idea that fiddling with boundaries based on out-of-date information can make the first-past-the-post system fairer is absurd. The only way to get a fair electoral system is to have a more proportionate system. The first virtue of a representative body, such as the House of Commons, is that it represents the political views of the people of the country. This body does not do that; in that respect, it is as bad as the pre-1832 Parliament.
Mr. Grieve: I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but from talking to some of his colleagues I had understood that they do not want the alternative vote and saw it merely as a device for breaking down the current first-past-the-post system so that we can move on to something else. Is that the case? One thing is certain: the alternative vote system is not a proportional representation system.
Mr. Cash: Did the hon. Gentleman hear the interesting piece on the "Today" programme during which John Curtice and a number of others were quoted on the fact that the Conservative party is at a grave disadvantage in the current system? It is loaded against us, and yet we are concerned to maintain first past the post precisely because it is about an individual in the polling booth exercising their freedom of choice, which will not be reshuffled by a lot of artificial mechanisms.
David Howarth: The Conservatives support the system for the obvious reason that occasionally, and in some decades for very long periods, it gives them absolute power. They prefer a system that gives them absolute power, which they exchange with the Labour party now and then, to a system that is fair to all electors.